Jacksonville Battered But Not Beaten

Simultaneous assessment and recovery lead to a concert and football weekend despite floods

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: September 13, 2017

The half-flooded field at EverBank Stadium after Hurricane Irma blew through Jacksonville, Fla. Still, the stadium will be open for football Sunday.

This is a story of cooperation and collaboration to the point the mayor announced the show will go on, the Jaguars will play football and Tim and Faith will sing less than a week after disaster hit.

Epic flooding, the worst since the 1800’s, hit Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, resulting in extensive damage to homes and businesses, including the seven sports and entertainment venues managed for the city by SMG.

Bill McConnell, GM there for SMG, still had a strong emotional reaction discussing what he experienced Monday afternoon when he was finally able to get to the venues. His main message, after all he’s been through, is praise for Mayor Lenny Curry, Jaguars’ Owner Shad Khan and President Mark Lamping and the decisions they made to bring the city back…quickly.

“The mayor has done a tremendous job; everyone in Jacksonville has been outstanding,” McConnell said. “We’ve been able to assess and recover simultaneously. We are very fortunate.”

The decision was made to open for business, including a Jacksonville Jaguars National Football League game at EverBank Field Sunday and a Tim McGraw and Faith Hill: Soul 2 Soul concert at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday, to give the city some relief and distraction and reason to cheer following the horrendous experience after Hurricane Irma rolled through town, causing historic storm surges.

The venues were not unscathed.  The mayor did not declare it important that the games be played until damage was assessed and    it was duly determined, given the state of the city, that emergency service personnel could be spared, McConnell said. Life-saving duties, of course, take precedence over traffic and crowd control for sports and entertainment. But it was deemed possible and therefore appropriate to go on with the shows.

McConnell does not live in a flood zone and was not under evacuation orders like many in the path of Hurricane Irma, so he opted to stay home. “The week of anticipation as Hurricane Irma made its way toward Florida was brutal, but it allowed us to be prepared,” he said.

The hurricane hit early Monday and was basically a 12-hour event. When McConnell awoke, he was faced with flooded streets in his non-flood zone neighborhood. “It was definitely hairy to wake up and see water in my garage and creeping toward my front door,” he recalled. But the water receded just as it reached his door and his concerns turned to the venues.

Several calls later he and AGM Keith Van Der Leest and Security Manager George Solomon had arranged to rendezvous with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) to be transported to the venues to help assess the damage. It would be another day before most of the other department heads could get out of their homes and to the venues, but when they did, the drill was to assess the damage and prioritize repair, from critical systems on down.

floodedlot300.jpgThe view from the baseball grounds looking east toward EverBank Field and flooded parking lots.

At EverBank Field, the parking lots were flooded and half the football field was underwater. The lower concourses in parts of the venue were also flooded. It sits right on the bank of the St. Johns River, McConnell said. The river spilled over its banks and into the sports complex.

“We’re still assessing the damage,” McConnell said Wednesday, but once the river receded and the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) got the power on, they were able to clear the water out of the stadium and parking lots. That gave them confidence they could host a game this weekend. Most of the other damage from wind – signs down and lights and fixtures out — could be dealt with. The critical systems are all working again, he said.

Damage at the arena was very similar — water intrusion, doors blown off, a lot of debris on the outside of the venue, he recalled. But once he was able to get inside and discover no disruption to critical systems he determined that the “arena, while battered, is functional.”

“Just like the football game, we need to have that concert to give people that outlet,” he said of the mayor’s call that the show should go on.

Times Union Center, the city’s performing arts center, is also on the riverbank, but downtown. He found it surrounded by water on all four sides on Monday and, immediately, thought the worst. He got in late Monday without power in the building and his first ray of hope was noting the lobby was dry. Power was restored Tuesday and they realized none of the systems were damaged.

hogan600.jpgThis is Hogan Street running south to the St. John's River. The Times Union Center for the Performing Arts (not seen in this photo) is located at the corner of Hogan and Water Street (just to the right of the Gazebo).

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra moved back in Wednesday and will rehearse Thursday for a performance on Saturday.

The Prime Osborn Convention Center, which used to be the Jacksonville train terminal, had water intrusion. The fresh air handler, 20 X 20 X 6 feet, was blown off the roof and left a huge hole. The rain came in.

“We were able to get people up there to patch the roof yesterday,” he said. “Today it served as a comfort and charging station for displaced JEA customers where they could get water, enjoy air conditioning and charge their phones. When I was there on Monday, that was the last thing on my mind.”

It’s still slow going; with full assessment comes record keeping, photos, etc., but the situation now, three days later, makes them feel good about being able to manage what they’re faced with.

“It’s hard not to get emotional after what we were looking at and facing,” McConnell said. He emphasized again and again the cooperation and collaboration among the mayor, JSO and Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department.

“I spent 25 years in the NFL and worked in cities all over the world. I can tell you it’s a special situation here,” he concluded.

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: September 13, 2017